WHAT IS THE LEAST UNDERSTOOD PROGRAM OF THE USFWS?

by Whit Gibbons

September 13, 2017

Efforts to control injurious wildlife may be one of the least understood programs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most people, including many ecologists, do not know the definition of injurious wildlife or that a program designed to protect us from their negative impacts even exists.

According to Susan Jewell of USFWS, injurious wildlife, as defined under the Lacey Act, includes wild mammals, wild birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, mollusks and crustaceans that are harmful to other wildlife or to humans and human interests like agriculture and forestry.

The USFWS calls the Lacey Act, passed in 1900, “the first federal law protecting wildlife.” It prohibited importation of designated wildlife species and was intended to prevent “the spread of invasive, or non-native, species.”

The injurious wildlife program under the Lacey Act excludes all plants, insects and domestic animals, which eliminates numerous unequivocally detrimental species. Nonetheless, plenty of wild species are around to be concerned about. But sometimes government programs can be affected by special commercial interests unwilling to relinquish authority and regulatory control, so the effectiveness of a well-meaning program can be weakened.

The original intent of the injurious wildlife law was to prohibit the importation of harmful species into the country. Snakehead fishes native to Asia and Africa are among the species identified as injurious.

Likewise, efforts are being made to keep certain Asian carp from entering and becoming established in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The Great Lakes commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries are collectively valued at more than $7 billion annually. Injurious species could prove costly to the fisheries.

Other targets of the injurious wildlife program have been large constrictor snakes from other countries, including invasive Burmese pythons, well known for their predatory dominance in southern Florida.

The original provisions were that the snakes could no longer be imported into the country or be transported across state lines. An individual violating the injurious species Lacey Act regulations could be sentenced to six months in jail and fined $5,000.

In January 2016, USFWS listed 201 of the 681 species of salamanders worldwide as injurious species. Why would a salamander be a threat to anyone or anything?

The rationale was “to protect native salamander populations from ... a fungus that is lethal to many salamander species.”

The acronym for the fungus is Bsal, based on the long scientific name of a chytrid fungus known from Europe, but that has not yet been found in U.S. salamanders.

The intent was to keep Bsal out of the country or, if it gets introduced, to keep it from being transported within the United States by people who keep pet salamanders, by scientists who conduct research on them and by the pet trade.

Because the injurious wildlife program is not well known, the public is unaware of how critical the program is for protecting against potential invasive species that are known to be detrimental to human interests and healthy environments.

Being a poorly understood program may also explain why lawmakers have not strengthened or even effectively supported the injurious wildlife program.

The federal government was unsuccessful in blocking efforts to overturn the regulation that pythons and other large constrictors cannot be transported across state lines.

Turns out that a special interest group’s challenge to a 2012 designation that Burmese pythons and other large constrictor snakes be listed as injurious wildlife was recently upheld, at least in part.

As a result, the federal law cannot be interpreted as prohibiting pythons or other wildlife on the injurious species list (including anacondas, Asian carp or even zebra mussels) from being transported across state lines within the continental United States.

As for the fate of our native salamanders, hopefully the listing of injurious salamanders from around the world will keep the lethal Bsal fungus out of the country so that transporting your pet salamander across state lines won’t be a concern.

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